Poignantly, a new blockbuster movie celebrating the best of journalism arrives at precisely the time that Peter Preston, who embodied the very best of journalists, leaves us. If there were two things Peter loved, they were movies and papers. I like to think he would have returned to the subject he addressed in his last column for this paper two weeks ago –The Post, the new Steven Spielberg movie with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep telling the story of the Washington Post’s battle to publish the story of the Pentagon papers in 1971. Having seen the film, he might have commented gnomically on the quality of some of the storytelling – for Peter always wanted stories to be told clearly – but he would have loved the film’s message: that journalism is about telling the truth, no matter how hard it is and no matter how great the pressure against you from management, government or the law.
In the last few days there have been countless wonderful tributes to Peter – to his kindness, his inscrutability, his energy, his brilliance and courage as a man and as a journalist.
And then, of course, there was his pipe. He was a quiet man around the Guardian office, no shouting or swearing, but you could tell when he was standing behind you from the pleasant whiff of tobacco fumes. “Hmm, not quite sure about that …” he would say about some headline you might be writing. “What about …?” And come up with a much better one.
And the fact that you never knew when he was going to turn up meant you had to do some of the insanely long hours he worked. He was like a father to me, taught me most of what I have ever known, and gave me, like so many journalists, some of the best years of our lives.
He saved two newspapers, the Guardian and Observer, which isn’t bad. The Guardian was facing terrible trouble – from a brutal price war, attacks from the Times and the Independent, raging newsprint costs, insane and malicious union disputes – but Peter battled through them all. The Independent, when it launched in the late 80s, came after many Guardian journalists, offering to double salaries. That so few of us left was a tribute to the loyalty and love we felt for Peter and his paper. Maybe a bit of fear too: journalists can be awfully cautious at times.
Through a shrewd series of investments and backed by an often brilliant commercial team, Peter started hugely successful supplements on media, education and the public sector, all bringing with them shedloads of classified advertising. Most of it has gone online now, but at the time this was a coup. This was supported by editorial innovation on a phenomenal scale – the women’s page, some brilliant cartoon strips, the G2 tabloid features section, a dazzling redesign that transformed the paper and is still widely imitated 30 years on.
Later he led the way when the Guardian group bought the Observer in 1993, and saved it from effective closure as the Independent wanted to fold it into its own Sunday paper. He was always immensely loyal to the Obs, despite coming under heavy bombardment from some Guardian staffers and one or two on the management side. Peter saw that the paper had great commercial potential. In fact, he was a highly commercially-minded man, unlike some on the Guardian who tended to view business and profit as dirty words.
He wasn’t ideological: he was progressive, outward-looking, fair-minded but I don’t know anyone who knew how he voted. He once interviewed a friend for a senior job at the Guardian. “Is there anything I should know about your politics?” Peter asked. (This was the mid-1980s and the new and short-lived Social Democratic party was more or less run by Guardian staffers.)
“Well, I was a member of the Communist party,” said my friend. “A communist? Oh well that’s OK, I thought you were going to say you were in the SDP. Half the staff seem to be eyeing up safe seats for the next election.” My friend, incidentally, got the job. Peter could always spot talent.
He believed, like all the best editors, that journalists should be outsiders: Peter was unbiddable, preferring a cinema or his beloved Millwall to the bright lights, swanky parties and first nights that too many of his colleagues liked to be seen at. He worked long and attritional hours, though would occasionally join his beloved (and very understanding) wife Jean for the end of a play. She said he had seen more second halves in the theatre than anyone living.
He was shrewd enough to spot the rising importance of green issues, launching Environment Guardian, another ad-yielding section as well as a skilful piece of branding. Quite how green Peter was I have never known: not especially I would guess, though at one time he did have a battered old Renault 4 parked up at the back of our Farringdon Road offices, bearing the legend “Nuclear Power? Nein Danke.” I think one of his daughters might have put it there, though. That was Peter all over: not for him the chauffeur-driven limos that most editors favoured. He would have thought it was a waste of money, for one thing.
He was certainly a frugal man, Peter, and – bless him – he expected most of his staff to be fairly frugal too. Early in my time there, as a subeditor, I found things fairly tight – this was London in the 1970s. I told Peter I was thinking of taking some freelance work in the mornings before coming in. “If you must,” said Peter. “Otherwise you could just find a rich wife.” I thought it was easier to take the freelance work.
Peter had recruited (and kept) an absolutely superb staff. And other papers wanted them. My, how they did. At one point the Sunday Times made an eye-popping offer for the late Frank Keating, the Shakespeare of sports writing. Frank loved the Guardian, which had given him a lavish canvas, and would have probably worked for nothing. It turned out that he almost was: Peter had a quick check on what Frank, who had certainly never complained, was actually being paid. Even Peter blanched a bit, gave Frank a few quid, though nothing like what he had been offered, and he stayed.
Another predator seen off. Frank, like so many of us, loved the paper that Peter made, with all its follies and foibles. Peter’s Guardian was a brilliant newspaper, quirky certainly but full of great reporters, home and overseas: when we did a shared reporting deal with the Washington Post, it turned out that the Guardian had a considerably bigger foreign staff. From its roots as a regional paper, Peter helped to turn the Guardian into one of the most important newspapers in the world. It was also rebellious, feisty and fun, full of different voices. We enjoyed producing it and we hoped people liked reading it.
Peter would not be defeated by anything: he battled polio as a child and defied its crippling effects to become a member of the Magic Circle. One of his early journalistic jobs was, he said, reviewing conjurors for the Magic Circle review. He was fired for being “too critical”. That was very believable. If pressed about his conjuring, he would say that his greatest trick was getting the Guardian out every night.
When I joined the paper in the mid-1970s, Peter was night editor, the last stage in his meteoric rise following some high-calibre writing jobs. He was now the person who gets the paper out: this was a time of vivid news – IRA bombings, political mayhem at home, strikes, upheavals in America, the cold war. Peter would map out his front page; I was one of the spear-carriers doing the rest. As the night unfolded, Peter would be at his typewriter, hammering out headlines and rewritten intros, one hand holding the other wrist steady as he hit the keys one-fingered.
It was always, then and for the next 40 years, an extraordinary performance. For the evening breaks, most of us would go to the pub or the canteen. Peter would stay at his desk, with a small pizza which he would microwave and a little plastic bottle of wine. It was very Peter: restrained, but not too restrained.
He was brave, bold, brilliant and tenacious. He believed that journalism wasn’t just about describing the world. It was also about trying to make it a better place. But now the world is a much poorer place without him. At the end of The Post, while frenzy grips the Washington Post newsroom as the paper is about to defy the government and publish the Pentagon papers, the editor Ben Bradlee, played by Hanks, leans across to his assistant, smiles and says, “Oh, the fun!” Peter Preston would have known what he meant.
Roger Alton held a range of senior positions at the Guardian before becoming editor of the Observer from 1998 to 2007
Guardian readers, politicians, media figures and former colleagues have paid extensive tributes to the former Guardian editor Peter Preston, who died at the weekend, aged 79. Preston oversaw significant changes to the newspaper while in the role between 1975 and 1995, including a move to Farringdon, the addition of the G2 daily supplement, the famous Hillman redesign, and an early decision to publish on the web. He guided the title to record circulation figures, and was editor when the paper alleged that then-MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith had been paid to ask questions in parliament. Hamilton launched a libel action against the Guardian but eventually dropped his case in 1996.
From Guardian colleagues
Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian and Observer, said: “At 10am on Monday morning, as usual, we had the Guardian’s editorial conference – our daily meeting which is hosted by the editor but which, unlike at most other news organisations, is open to all colleagues. It was Peter Preston who introduced the idea of making this meeting open to everyone, and on Monday the discussion focused, quite naturally, on him. His vision. His innovation. His pipe. His rare ability to admit when he got things wrong. His kindness, which was discreet and thoughtful and experienced by so many of us.
“Every email he sent me included words of encouragement, from ‘more power to your elbow’ to ‘hope you’re in good heart’. You always felt that Peter had your back. He was excited about the Guardian as it is today – he loved the membership scheme, how we’ve put journalism at the heart of it, and he was thrilled that we decided to go tabloid on 15 January. I wish he could have seen it.
“His last column, filed just a few days before he died, was powerful. He wrote in the Observer that the media ought to be ‘a business that means treating readers in a jam like human beings, identifying distress, becoming a functioning part of society rather than commentators at its edges.’ I can’t think of a better way of summing up what the Guardian should be.”
Alan Rusbridger, who followed Preston into the role of Guardian editor in 1995, said: “Fleet Street editors tended to have their favourite dining haunts. Over the years I enjoyed breakfasts, lunches and dinners with colleagues on other papers at a fine collection of deferential five star restaurants and whisperingly-exclusive members’ clubs.
“The backdrop to a meal with PP [as he was known] was usually the opposite. You’d saunter out of the office in (the then-not-very-fashionable) Clerkenwell and find yourself in an obscure eatery that did not feel long for this world. He and I discussed prototypes of the first Weekend Guardian over an early evening half pint in a pub then best known for its lunchtime strippers. When he took me out to lunch in January 1995 to tell me he’d be stepping down as editor it was over a mediocre ham sandwich in a basement spit-and-sawdust café that no-one else on the staff had ever noticed.
“He could be very good company; but he was entirely unclubbable. He was an outsider to his core – and the Guardian was, geographically, historically and spiritually, the outsider paper. However you defined the establishment, Peter wanted no part of it. His work on parliamentary sleaze grew out of the same slightly puritanical soil. Westminster was another club he never wanted to join.
“He was dogged, stubborn, tough-minded – and was always the first to slip away from the (frugal) Christmas drinks to get back to a half-written editorial. But he was also amused and humane. Under his leadership, the Guardian was place where great characters thrived; great fun was had, and great journalism happened.”
Martin Kettle, columnist and leader writer for the Guardian, observed that “Preston turns out to have been the last editor of the Guardian who wrote Guardian editorials regularly. This is largely because in those days the job of editing still allowed time for that. And it was partly because he was a 24/7 journalist long before 24/7 journalism was invented. He loathed not to be working. He often said he felt twitchy if he hadn’t written each day. He always gave the impression that he could do most jobs in the paper better than the person who was doing it – with the possible exception of Hugo Young. He may have been right about that. There were certainly jobs he coveted – film critic and Washington correspondent high among them.
“Peter’s readiness to write cut both ways with the leader writers. The up side was that it took some of the daily pressure off us, so that we didn’t have to write all the time and could get out of the office to read, interview and (those were the days) lunch, hopefully for the good of the paper and the leader column. The down side was that it inevitably led to a characteristically warm but withering remark as he summed up the discussion: ‘Martin, you get a well-deserved input day’ – the words emphasised sufficiently for his gently censorious point to be made. Input, it was clear, was not Peter’s idea of journalism. What mattered, to him and to the readers, was output.”
Anne McHardy worked alongside Preston for many years as reporter and then night news editor: “Two incidents sum up Peter Preston’s journalistic integrity and professionalism for me,” she says. “The first in 1978 while I was working as Northern Ireland correspondent and was back in London from Belfast. Peter walked down with office with a big grin on his face and said: ‘You must be doing a good job! I have just had the secretary of state take me to lunch to complain about you … Let me take you for lunch now!’ and the second in 1987, while I was night news editor on the night of the King’s Cross fire, which broke out just before first edition time. The paper was in transit between two technologies and the night desk was where they met, which meant is was often mayhem. Peter, in a dinner suit, came back into the office and stood behind me as I bridged the technology gaps. ‘What can I do?’, he said. ‘Organise the tea for us all!’ I said, and he did. The rest of the night he helped count numbers of the dead as well, of course as writing himself and encouraging us all, not least as we realised one of our number was badly hurt. On a more personal note, being a devoted family man, he would often arrive behind my desk in late afternoons to see, over my shoulder, what his son, then working for PA, was writing.”
Polly Toynbee recalls her appointment to the paper by Preston: “The call from Peter Preston came out of the blue. Would I write a 2,000-word column on the famous/infamous Guardian women’s page? I was a reporter on the Observer, writing mainly about industrial disputes and working life – it was 1977 – and I’d written a book on unskilled work.
“I wasn’t an obvious choice: I’d written little about women, except at work. Did I want to join the feminist ‘wimmin’, as Private Eye mocked great women’s page columnists such as Jill Tweedie, Mary Stott and Posy Simmons’ dazzling strip cartoon? Other women’s pages were still all woollies, jellies and how to keep your man, while the Guardian’s trailblazing pages wrote about domestic violence, periods, the menopause, oppressive obstetrics, orgasms – and other things that frankly made Preston blench a bit. ‘You don’t have to write just about women,’ he said slightly pleadingly.
“He was proud but instinctively alarmed at what he had created, so his remedy was to seek out women writers with no feminist track record. As women’s editors he chose Liz Forgan, then Frances Cairncross, political and economics writers. But we all went native, tugged into the strong feminist slipstream by Jill Tweedie’s radiant wit, raw indignation and soaring refusal to tolerate a male-dominated world. It changed my life, for the better. Liz Forgan says the same. The mark of a great editor is to sow new seeds and let them bloom: Preston came to see this feminist vanguard as one of his many triumphs, and I’m forever grateful.”
Posy Simmonds, who contributed to those pages, added “he was the corduroy-jacketed features editor when I first worked for the Guardian in 1972. As a freelancer, delivering drawings to the office once or twice a week, I was more on smiling and nodding terms with him. On one occasion, he nearly collided with me as he hurried to his desk. ‘I’m just going to put out a small brush fire,’ he said.
“One day in 1977 I met him in the lift. He asked, rather shyly, whether I’d consider doing a strip for the paper. For a second, I mistook his meaning. He explained that John Kent, creator of the Varoomshka cartoon strip, was going to America, leaving an empty space in the bottom half of the Women’s page. I will always be very grateful to Peter for giving me the opportunity to create the Webers strip, and also, after the strip’s wobbly start, for having the patience to let me develop the idea.”
Liz Forgan describes the process that also led to her working on that section. “The letter arrived at my desk at the Evening Standard out of the blue. An invitation to tea. I went to an old Guardian hand for decoding. ‘This means there’s a job. You must go to tea but remember to shake his elbow not his hand – and if you don’t talk no one will.’
“I went. Forgot the elbow. Babbled uninterrupted for over an hour until people started hovering outside the door and I realised that someone had to end this meeting if the paper was to get out that night. Still mystified, I thanked him for tea and stood up to go. ‘I should have got some biscuits’ was the only reply – until a letter next day offering me a job editing Guardian Women.
“Peter was hard to read but a joy to work for. Caustically witty, enigmatic, brave and utterly incorruptible he was never cosy with anyone but he inspired more affection that he would have believed. Deeply committed to an idea of Europe, to independent journalism as a crucial tool of liberal democracy and to pluralism as an editorial principle, he moulded the Guardian with serious purpose but enlivened its solemnity with humour and humanity.”
The Guardian’s theatre critic, Michael Billington, was hired by Preston in 1971, having previously worked with him in Oxford and while as a trainee journalist at the Liverpool Post and Echo. He remembers being “in awe of his ability tap out punchy, authoritative leaders on local, national and international issues. In 1971 I got a call from Peter, then features editor, inviting me to become the Guardian’s theatre critic. Since I’d known Peter in Oxford and Liverpool, this might have smacked of favouritism. Only later did I learn that it was Peter who was persuaded by others to appoint me. I took that as the mark of the honesty and integrity of a truly great newspaperman.”
Peter Cole, who served as news editor and deputy editor under Preston said: “He loved newspapers to the point of addiction. He loved popular newspapers almost as much as he loved the Guardian. His critics accused him of being ‘qualipop’; in reality he believed there was no harm in selling copies. And that Guardian readers should not be excluded from the national conversation because many of the staff were too lofty to allow ‘popular’ stories into the paper. He would assess the size of the group of his staff around the TV when the news was dominated by scandal, royalty, or celebrity, and then remark to the news editor that the more people watching, the less likely he would be to find it in the next day’s Guardian.
“He did not announce himself; he would materialise. The only warning as he approached the newsdesk with his usual question ‘Anything happening?’ was the pungent smell of pipe tobacco. He did not announce himself on the phone either. As duty editor I would take the call which came seconds after the last boing of the News at Ten headlines. ‘It’s me,’ he would say, and wait for my update.
”His favourite expression was ‘I slightly think.’ But he knew exactly what he wanted, and expected you to work out what it was. His judgment was usually spot on. He was editor when the Guardian sold more copies than at any other time in its history.
Final snapshot: an away-day for executives at a country hotel just outside London. We were discussing major changes to the paper and the day went rather well. We gathered outside at the end for a drink. PP decided not to stay. As he drove past the rest of us on his departure he gave a modest wave and for no apparent reason most of us gave a mock salute. He looked terribly pleased. And we felt very affectionate.”
Hadley Freeman recalls how Preston continued to support and mentor younger journalists joining the Guardian. “It takes an enormous generosity of spirit to be an older journalist who looks at the younger ones coming up behind you, ones who write about things in which you have absolutely no interest, and support them. Preston did that for me. There was no reason for him to be so kind to me. After all, I started at the Guardian long after he stopped editing the paper, and I wrote about fashion, a subject in which I’m sure he had minimal interest. And yet he often sent me encouraging emails and even praised me in his own column sometimes, much to my astonishment. I can only hope that I’ll be half as open-minded and open-hearted at 40 as he was at 79. An inspiration on so many levels.”
Deborah Orr posted on Twitter to describe Peter as “a brilliant, complex, kind and lovely man” whom she hadn’t recognised when she first met him in a lift in the Guardian’s offices. She also recalled how in the early 1990s, when she was editor of the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, after the acquisition of the Observer, Preston called her into his office, which she described as “a big thing”. “I’m wracked with guilt,” he said, “The man who edits the Observer magazine is paid £5k more than you. I have to give you a £5k raise.”
Matthew Engel speaks of a unique editor’s tactic that Preston employed during the 1980s: “Potential defectors were often kept in the Guardian fold by the offer, not of a slap-up meal and a huge pay rise, but Peter’s own favoured lunch, ‘a cheese and tomato sandwich’. It could be surprisingly effective: confronted with his integrity and devotion to the paper, it was very hard to be disloyal.”
On Preston moving people in the other direction, Simon Hattenstone says “He was the first editor to sack me from the Guardian.”
“I was a 27-year-old casual subeditor,” he explained. “The arts editor, Helen Oldfield, kindly suggested I wrote a weekly diary– gossip, upcoming movies, crap jokes, that sort of thing, It was the tiniest column on the paper. Weirdly it became popular(ish). Except with Peter Preston. What I didn’t know back then was that he was mad about films, formidably knowledgeable, and had history as a diarist himself. After a few months, he told Helen that she had to get rid of the column because it was awful. I barged into his office uninvited to ask me why he hated me so much. Any other editor might have called for help. He simply said that he didn’t hate me, just my writing.
“One of the great things about him was that he constantly re-evaluated his opinions and was happy to admit when he thought he’d been unfair. After another three years’ casual subbing – and failing to get the many posts I applied for – he called me into his office to tell me he was offering me a job as a features subeditor. It wasn’t just the fact he offered me the job that made it special, it was the way he did it. ‘Simon, I am particularly pleased to be able to offer you this,’ he said. He meant it, too – I could tell from the way he puffed on his pipe. He apologised and said he’d got me wrong. It said so much about him, and still means so much to me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so good.”
Jonathan Freedland recalls Preston as someone who worked tirelessly, right until the very end, on supporting the cause of press freedom: “After vacating the editor’s chair, Peter Preston spent much of his time working with organisations defending and promoting journalism abroad, especially in those places unused, or hostile, to a free press. My last message from him came three days before Christmas: it was encouraging to me, as always, but it came from Peter in his capacity as a committee member of yet another organisation advocating for the international press. What I did not know – but he surely did – was that, as he sent it, he was in the final weeks of his life. Even then, facing death, he was mentoring a journalist and championing journalism. It was his life’s work, to the end.”
Richard Gott, formerly features editor, took on a role that Preston had previously excelled at. “I was acutely conscious that this was a role in which he himself had been notably successful. However, I was never given the slightest hint about what I should do, apart from an initial comment that he thought the department had too many feature writers. For the next 10 years I imagined that I was in sole charge, yet I always knew that he was looking over my shoulder, often literally. One day he suddenly announced that I could start a new page of political comment, to be called the Agenda Page, and it would start next Monday. He concurred with my only stipulation that it should contain comment beyond the existing consensus. So I signed up Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, and very soon, with the advent of the Thatcher era and the formation of the SDP, we had exceptionally lively pages, the model for what now appears daily in all the quality papers.
Alan Travis, the Guardian’s home affairs editor, alluded to Preston’s fascination with an unlikely art: “It is often said that the one thing you need to know about Nigel Lawson was that he called his daughter ‘Nigella’. So with Peter it was said the one thing you needed to know about him was that he was a member of the Magic Circle. To be a member you have to have one conjuring trick that is yours and yours alone. The mystery with PP, with his polio-withered right arm and disabled left hand, was to know what piece of manual dexterity qualified him for Magic Circle membership. The answer was that his trick, and his alone, was ‘that the Guardian came out everyday. Nobody knew how it was done.’”
Nicholas Bannister, who joined the Guardian in 1970 aged 23, and retired in 2003, highlighted both Preston’s attention to detail, and his kindness: “Peter, as editor, was always kind and considerate, especially when I was plagued by epilepsy. He would often come into the City office for a chat after everyone had gone home and I was just double-checking that I had not missed anything. In the morning he would often stop and give me a lift when I was waiting for the bus. Small things like that perhaps but a sign of his very generous and human side. He was undoubtedly a very brave and innovative editor and the world of journalism has suffered a great loss.”
John Mulholland, the Observer editor, said he “got to know Peter only a little when I joined the Guardian in 1990 but it was during my time on the Observer – where he wrote a weekly media column – that I came to know him well, and I soon came to relish our occasional meetings and chats. He would appear in the office infrequently but a sighting of Peter meant that you were assured of two things. Firstly, he would invariably offer a precise and laser sharp insight into whatever political/structural/personnel issue you troubled him with. And, secondly, and much more fun, would be Peter’s voracious appetite for media gossip, and the closer to home the more interested he was.
“He would listen intently, shuffle a little as he turned to go and then offer a gnomic observation on what he had just heard followed by an outrageously mischievous smile. My professional memories of Peter are of his steadfastness, judgment and foresight – and my personal memories are ones of tremendous warmth, playfulness and enormous loyalty to the Observer in the latter decades of his career.”
Around the media
Preston helped found the European Press Prize in 2012. He poured extraordinary energy into building it, despite his declining health, striving to honour quality journalism being produced across Europe in increasingly challenging times.
Sir Harold Evans, former editor of the Times and Sunday Times and chair of the European Press Prize jurors, wrote: “He inspired us all with his vision of what it might achieve in uniting the journalists of our diverse continent Europe. He was a journalist imbued with the ideals of Europe and committed all his life to the highest standards of integrity in our ceaseless search for truth.”
Preston also started the Guardian’s environmental supplements, placing Melanie Phillips, the Guardian’s former home news editor and now a Times columnist, in charge of it. She describes Peter as “a complex, difficult character who hid behind a wall of elliptical utterances and deniable obfuscation. Presiding over the temple of media liberalism, he himself was no ideologue. When I worked as the paper’s social policy editorial writer, there were occasions when he approved the argument I was making even though it was clear he didn’t altogether agree.
“He was an editor of genius. One of his great achievements was to spot a cultural trend and use it to attract lucrative advertising. When deep green environmentalism arose as a cause in the late 1980s, he decided to start a new supplement, Environment Guardian. Even though he knew I believed this was a deeply reactionary movement for putting modernity into reverse, destroying the integrity of science and damaging the developing world, he appointed me as its editor – to the fury of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. He adored rocking the boat; and for a long time, I adored him.”
Former BBC Radio 4 Today programme presenter James Naughtie served as chief political correspondent at the Guardian during the 1980s while Preston was in the editor’s chair. “One of the odd things about working at Westminster for PP, as we all knew him, was that we knew he couldn’t stand the place. He once summoned the political staff to a rendezvous in the old Press Gallery bar, and we knew it must be bad news because there was nowhere that he tried more resolutely to avoid. He was indeed bringing tidings that weren’t welcome at the time. The details don’t matter now, but he was characteristically blunt, sharp and determined. They were, of course, the qualities for which we admired him. Even in his more elliptical leaders (you knew it was him when his giveaway words ‘happenstance’ or ‘plangent’ appeared) the thread was strong and iron-clad. His pen raced almost as quickly as his mind, and you were aware that he missed nothing on the way. He could cut a piece like a razor, spot any dodgy construction, and winkle out the fatal weakness in a conclusion. Above all, lurking under the mask of his shyness, was a generosity to his staff – especially to their rampant diversity, which would have destroyed some editors – and to the spirit of the paper, which he treasured so much. His was the newspaper era that moved from complacent security to permanent uncertainty, but he never doubted the purpose, nor lost the gleam in his eye. That’s why so many of us were proud to work for him.”
Mark Damazer, master of St Peter’s College, Oxford and controller of Radio 4 2004-2010, recalls Preston’s international efforts: “Peter was for decades the indispensable ingredient of the International Press Institute – a multi-national, multilingual body of editors and publishers championing a free press around the world.
“For 20 years he presided over its British branch with impeccable courtesy and acuity – bringing together senior editors of all ideological persuasions in print and in broadcasting for off-the-record lunches with cabinet ministers, publishers, bishops and anybody he thought would interest us. It was the only such forum where at least some of the institutional and physical barriers between print and electronic media were dismantled.
“But even more importantly – he was the moral core of the IPI as an international organisation. He was happy and palpably more relaxed when away from purely British media and political concerns and was venerated as an indefatigable harasser of repressive regimes. He was a masterful author of formal documents condemning autocrats and delighted in asking rude questions of their lackeys. But he also put in the hours to ensure that a hard-pressed institution survived. His impact went way beyond Britain.”
From the world of politics
David Steel, former leader of the Liberal party and Liberal Democrats, said “I have the fondest memories of Peter Preston. When he was still a cub reporter he was sent to cover the by-election in Roxburgh, Selkirk & Peebles in the spring of 1965, where I was the candidate. All the major newspapers had reporters embedded full-time in the constituency – changed days! He followed me around much of the time and ended his final report with what was to me a disappointing appraisal that he ‘half expected’ the Liberals to win. I teased him many times about that, and got to know him as one of the paper’s shrewd political correspondents before becoming editor. Two years ago he was kind enough to return to the Borders to open my 50th anniversary exhibition, and wrote a column about it. He was always a witty and erudite companion, surmounting his polio disability, and is a huge loss to the profession of serious journalism.”
Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, wrote: “Peter was perceptive, creative and – above all – brave in thought and deed. His courage had no flamboyance, it was simply a resolute, even relentless, application of enlightened instinct. He did and said what came naturally to his intelligence and he acted and articulated with painstaking determination rather than dashing lunges.
He was a newspaperman who believed that journalism in the service of the public is a cause and not just a profession, and he rigorously put that conviction into effect as Guardian editor and as an analyst and commentator.
Peter was enigmatic and reserved, his humour was dry, his manner unassuming. And all of those unpretentious attributes made his unbending dedication to justice, liberty, transparency and accountability hugely impressive and – as his record graphically shows – often productive.
His values, his work, his sense of purpose advanced freedom and fairness against forces that seek to resist both. Peter was, in short, the best of progressives – clear in his objectives and with the steel needed to achieve them.”
Roy Hattersley recalls working with Preston as editor: “For 10 years of my long stint as a Guardian columnist, Peter Preston was my editor. And for much of that time, I was deputy leader of the Labour party. Whenever we met – employer and employee or politician and journalist – Peter was always the same. He possessed a calm self confidence that absolved him from the necessity of demonstrating how clever or how well informed he was. Conversations with Peter contained periods of un-nerving silence while he waited for the answer to his trenchant question. Asked to adjudicate between Alan Rusbridger (then his deputy) and me about whether or not my column should be moved from Saturday to Monday, he crushed us both by saying that it did not matter. It was such a civilised rebuke that I, at least, accepted it with good grace. I shall remember him as thoughtful, moderate and radical – all the qualities that the Guardian, at its best, embodies”
From Guardian readers
Sue Wilson, from Gwynedd in North Wales, recalls meeting Peter Preston in 1987, having won the prize of a wine-tasting trip to the Bordeaux region in a Guardian competition, and a visit to the paper to see how it was produced. “I was surprised when Peter Preston took time to come and talk to me,” she recalls. “At the end of our chat he said that had he been eligible to enter the competitions mine was the very prize he would have fancied. I knew he could have afforded as many wine-tasting trips as he pleased but I heard something in his voice that made me think what he really meant was he wouldn’t mind the freedom, just once in a while, to be the carefree Guardian reader without the editor’s responsibilities. Maybe I was just being fanciful. Who knows?”
One website contributor, stokey95, commented: “In a manner somewhat like Doctor Who, the editor who was in charge when you first come to the Guardian is always going to be the best. I would like to thank Preston for bringing me into a lifetime of reading and affiliation.”
Another commenter tells of meeting Preston when they were training to be a local radio reporter: “Back in the late 80s I was on a BBC Local Radio training course in London. We were asked to go out and interview someone and bring it back the next day to play to the group. I called the Guardian and asked if I could speak to someone on the paper for a few minutes that evening about how the paper is put together etc. When I arrived I was surprised that the editor, Peter Preston, had asked to do the interview with me. I spent an hour with him as he was taking urgent calls about that night’s paper. He was as interested in my job as I was in his.”
Preston showed similar interest when Jane Drake, who went on to become a local newspaper reporter, visited the Guardian’s offices on work experience. “Peter made a huge impression on me. One day he casually came up to me and asked me if I would like to sit in on the editors’ meeting where Peter discussed with a handful of senior editors, and with the cartoonist present, what would be the lead stories going to press that day. I couldn’t believe that he would let me sit in on a meeting like that, and I remember how kind he was and how straightforward, and the memory of that experience has stayed with me all my life.”
From family and friends
Ben Preston, his son, writing at the weekend for the Sunday Times, where he is executive editor, said:“Dad died a good death, one that amplified the qualities we so admired while he lived. Resilience, bravery, wisdom – he was loved and loving until the end. He showed [his children] who we should aspire to be. If only we could be so resilient, humane and wise – in life as well as death.”
Tim Cook met Peter Preston when they were at infants school aged eight, and they remained friends. “Before contracting polio he was a fanatical goalkeeper, never happier than making great saves and the muddier the goalmouth the better. After polio, as he fought to regain mobility, three of us played hours of cricket with him in his garden. Peter was the batsman attempting flashy shots, either connecting or falling over but never giving up or complaining. At the grammar school he was the outstanding talent in our generation though at one point the school thought he should become an accountant. He was always immersed in newspapers. On a trip around Europe with him and two friends in 1959, Peter was able to spot kiosks selling English papers from afar, and off he went to buy them. The Colosseum could wait while these papers were digested along with the cappuccino. His great journalistic career was to us in no doubt. Over 71 years we shared so much, including the cinema, and I was truly lucky to have such a friend.”
His last column
Preston’s first foray into journalism was reviewing magic shows on the television for the Magic Circle News. He says he was sacked after a few months for being too critical. “We were supposed to say how wonderful all these magicians were. They weren’t,” he told the Leicester Mercury five years ago.
His final piece was also about honesty. His son says that by the time he wrote it “1,800 words were easier to write – pecking, one-fingered at the keyboard – than to speak” but that it wasn’t intended to be valedictory. “Within minutes of sending it, he started fretting about what he’d write the next week.”
The former editor of the Guardian Peter Preston has died at the age of 79.
Preston, widely regarded as one of the finest journalists of his generation, joined the Guardian in 1963 and was editor between 1975 and 1995, overseeing some of the most dramatic moments in the newspaper’s history.
Over two decades as editor he was at the forefront of newspaper innovation, transforming the Guardian into a genuine national force with an international reputation, and instigating a radical and much admired redesign that helped the newspaper fight back against the launch of the Independent and a brutal price war.
Preston also came up with the concept, now commonplace but at the time revolutionary, of a secondary daily features supplement with the launch of G2.
He continued to work for the Guardian and Observer as a columnist after standing down as editor. Preston’s final column on press and broadcasting was published on New Year’s Eve.
Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian and Observer, said Preston was a “brilliant editor” of the newspaper as well as a “generous and supportive ex-editor”.
She said: “His tenure was full of innovation, from launching the groundbreaking and much-imitated G2 to instigating the fabulous Hillman redesign to publishing on the web unusually early, in 1994.
“Since I became editor-in-chief of the Guardian and the Observer in 2015, Peter has been a kind and unobtrusively supportive friend, providing advice and insights and the kind of ballast that could only come from someone who’d been there and done it.
“His last email to me was to praise the Guardian’s membership figures and ended with the comment ‘hope you’re in good heart’. He will be missed by everyone at the Guardian.”
Alan Rusbridger, who served as Preston’s deputy and succeeded him as editor in 1995, said the Guardian owed him an immense debt.
“Peter embodied all the best virtues of the paper he edited with such distinction for so long,” Rusbridger said. “He combined great integrity, a stubborn toughness and a decent humanity with real strategic vision. The paper owes him an immense debt.
“Peter preferred to be an outsider. He was not one to join clubs. He didn’t seek the company of politicians. He was gritty, dogged – and brave. He led from the front.
“He was also a great innovator. Peter transformed the idea of features journalism in the Guardian. His dramatic remaking of the paper in 1988 was as bold a stroke of radical design as anyone had seen. He was always curious and impatient to know ‘what next?’
“Finally, he was a great internationalist. To the end he worked tirelessly for the protection of reporters and editors around the world and towards the education of journalists in Eastern Europe and Africa. He will be sorely missed.”
John Mulholland, editor of the Observer, said Preston had been a “loyal friend” to the newspaper as well as its media columnist for more than 20 years.
“He was a frequent visitor to our offices and invariably offered wise counsel, often laced with a mischievous sense of humour,” he said. “He was a delight to spend time with. We greatly valued his writing, his enormous warmth, and his unmatched journalistic judgement.”
One of Preston’s first acts as editor of the Guardian was to help move the newspaper into modern London offices in Farringdon Road in 1976, which included moving its printing floor in less than 48 hours. This relocation provided a new base from which Preston and the Guardian were able to cover the increasingly polarised political climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
A radical redesign of the Guardian in 1988 ensured the newspaper enjoyed a new period of success despite the launch of the Independent in 1986 and a price war among broadsheets instigated by the Times. The circulation of the Guardian hit record levels under Preston, at one stage clearing 500,000 copies a day.
Michael White, former political editor of the Guardian and who worked with Preston, said: “At first glance Peter Preston was an improbable Fleet Street editor. He wasn’t charismatic and never raised his voice, he was taciturn and soft-spoken, often elliptical, both in conversation and his writing. He chewed the ends of biros.
“But beneath the outward diffidence lay a powerful determination and nimble intelligence which he deployed constantly to refresh the Guardian through two tough decades, Quick and clever, with a warm, mischievous sense of humour, Peter loved print and never lost faith in the future of newspapers.”
The success of the Guardian under Preston was underpinned by agenda-setting stories, some of which led to the Conservative government under John Major becoming engulfed by sleaze scandals.
Tisdall was jailed for leaking details to the Guardian about the movement of cruise missiles. The newspaper initially won a legal battle against the government about revealing its source but when the decision was overturned the Guardian handed over the relevant documents.
Preston was born in 1938 in Leicestershire. His father died from polio when Preston was a child and then he caught the disease too. He survived and went on to win a place at the University of Oxford, where he edited the Cherwell, the student newspaper.
After graduating, Preston joined the Liverpool Daily Post as a trainee before being hired by the Manchester Guardian in 1963 at the age of 25.
Preston started as the newspaper was undergoing its transformative move from Manchester to London, with editor Alastair Hetherington moving to the capital in 1964.
Preston worked as a reporter, foreign correspondent, features editor and night editor. He became editor in 1975 at the age of just 37 after Hetherington announced he would stand down. Preston was chosen over his friend John Cole by a committee set up by the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian. Preston and Cole remained friends until Cole died in 2013.
Alongside his successful career as a journalist, Preston wrote two novels, Bess and 51st State.
“What was it like being the Guardian’s national news editor?” the commissioning editor asked. There are no shortage of events to reflect on after five years in the job after all. Two general elections, two referendums, a dismal string of terror attacks and the horror of the Grenfell inferno. And that’s just a start. A turbulent quinquennial for a nation that no longer knows itself, whose elites repeatedly reveal how little they understand or control. “Like swallowing a waterfall,” I replied.
A typical smart aleck answer perhaps, though aquatic metaphors often seem appropriate. News always flows, sometimes it pours, flooding the Guardian newsdesk without cease via proliferating channels. Every news editor, on arrival in the morning, organises their desktop to highlight the best of the news wires, at least two TV stations, BBC and Sky News, Twitter and other social media. Then they contend with the constant stream of email and chat messages from 50 reporters – the most committed in the business.
Sometimes, for fun, you can explain to younger colleagues how, 15 years ago, pre-internet, it was not necessary for this reporter to start writing until 4.30pm when the first edition deadline was 7pm. Five years ago, when starting on the news desk, the aim would be to publish an article within 15 minutes of a news break. Now the task is to beat the rolling news channels and publish, within moments, a single paragraph starting from the desk that is filled out, revised and updated by reporters throughout the day.
Reporters know they may be called on at a second’s notice and editors have to make decisions equally quickly. It is intense, thrilling and ultimately exhausting. The national, or home, desk covers UK news, politics, crime, human interest and social affairs. It is situated next to colleagues on foreign and opposite the web team, responsible for the front page of the site. The adjacency matters in this digital age.
By 8.45am, when the first news meeting is held, it is necessary to have an outline plan for the day. A separate print newspaper team take the best of the web and make it into the daily, and they constantly keep in touch too. There is a desk team of about eight, publishing perhaps 30 stories a day and rejecting many more. In London the first national editor arrives at 7am, the last leaves after 1am. But that is not enough: full overnight cover is provided by colleagues in Sydney, whose assistance during the terror attacks and tragic fire of the spring and early summer was invaluable.
A deadly incident can happen at any time, beginning as a wave of whispers on social media and the police knowing no more than you. Manchester and London Bridge both happened in the late evening, Grenfell later still. How serious is it? Time to open a live blog? Time to send reporters to the scene? Will they be safe? Who is on duty, who needs to be kept informed and who will you need early the next morning to find out who did it, what caused it? It all needs to be worked out in an hour or so, and as calmly as possible.
This begins to answer what news editors do. The job is to cast, clarify and communicate. Some stories are exclusives hauled in by reporters, others relate to events and developments and belong to specialists, but the rest are assigned by the desk because they don’t belong to anybody in particular. It may not be Hollywood but around half of the bylines are part selected by an editor, mindful of the talents of each reporter and, of course, who is free. Each writer needs to be given a canvas, instructions on what to aim for, what to exclude, what colleagues on related stories are doing; the line to take is agreed between the editor and writer and, where necessary, filed copy needs to be rewritten for lucidity and impact.
Editors help decide what is important too, although often it is obvious, for instance when Britain votes for Brexit and David Cameron goes. A list with the news ranked in a rough hierarchy is produced. On quieter days, as the newspaper deadline looms, the question to ask is “what is the most important thing happening in Britain today” or more precisely what will that thing be tomorrow morning. The question is a reminder of what a privilege the job is, an eyrie from which the mood of the nation can be discerned and the clockwork of its interlocking parts perceived. One can observe what Number 10 is trying to do each day, and whether they succeed or fail. Cameron and Osborne were hyperactive, prepared to govern just for the afternoon; team May’s vow-of-silence media game probably last worked in the 1950s.
Yet amid all the speed, it is necessary to think, to give reporters latitude to develop their ideas, to shed preconceived notions and establish the facts, to hunt for exclusives. This is where so much of the Guardian’s best work lies, and where the daily, weekly, monthly challenge is. Many of the most important stories come not from one big revelation but through patiently developing a theme – London property ownership, the influence of Russian bots, or sexual abuse and harassment.
The power of the Guardian is the excellence of the journalism allied to the volume of its megaphone. A brilliant exclusive about Home Office immigration policy after Brexit or strong interpretative reportage about fixed odds betting terminals will be copied swiftly, dominating other media – the most crucial being the BBC’s running order – and perhaps briefly the national conversation. In a world where it is easy to feel flooded by news and information, the editor’s challenge is not just to act fast but to find ways to change the way people think.